The manner in which the media reports on climate change influences people's perceptions, attitudes and support for climate policy. Media(ted) climate change communication, i.e. the presentation of climate change as a policy and people's view of climate change in the media, has been recognised as an important space where the public make sense of climate issues. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the nature of social diversity, or different categories of social actors, in media representations and the extent to which it affects public sense-making around climate change governance.
This is according to Dr Dominic Okoliko from the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University (SU). He obtained his doctorate in Public and Development Management on Tuesday 14 December 2021 at SU's December graduation.
For his PhD study, Okoliko, who hails from Nigeria, explored media(ted) climate change communication in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya by analysing articles on climate change in some of these countries' major newspapers and also interviewing journalists covering the issue. His analysis focused on the extent to which social diversity and a plurality of views are reflected in the media's coverage of climate change.
Okoliko says sustainability transitions require an engaged public who are negotiating, endorsing, and legitimising policy options. Therefore, his study redirects attention to how the processes of sense-making in the media on climate change issues reveal positionalities and material realities that shape the climate change discourse. According to Okoliko, positionalities refer to how differences in social position and power shape the claims-maker's role.
He adds that we have a limited understanding of how lower-income societies, especially those in Africa, engage in sense-making around climate change through the media. He says these societies are often the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change.
Okoliko says the results of his study showed that a range of actors, including politicians, experts, transnational development agencies, business people, civil society groups and ordinary members of the public, are given a voice in the media.
“However, my study found that the views of politicians and experts received unparalleled and privileged coverage. Ordinary members of the public were remarkably under-represented which indicates a skewed climate change representation towards the elites. This was true for the newspapers analysed across the three countries.
“The results indicate that it matters to pay attention to who gets heard when climate change is discussed. Different actors emphasise the interpretations which align with their values and interests.
“For example, the industry actors were closely matched to economic frames on climate change while the public were more likely to speak on impacts and agricultural frames. What this tells us is that under-representation of a particular group could limit their contribution to public deliberation on climate change."
Okoliko adds that all the journalists he interviewed agreed it is important to expand the deliberative space offered by the media to the public on climate change.
“They mentioned, however, that in reality a plurality of views is not always accommodated. This has to do with how the journalists perceive their role in relation to covering climate change, the kind of norms that guide their practice, and the material conditions under which they work."
Okoliko says the journalists also mentioned the impact dwindling media revenue has had on climate change reporting.
“They indicated that news about the environment and climate change often takes a backseat because of limited resources. Additionally, as editors try to meet the expectations of readers to guarantee more 'clicks' and 'comments', news about climate change does not feature so prominently unless of course, it's about a specific natural disaster."
Okoliko says because climate change is not a problem of a particular group or location, exposing people to the differences in experience of and perspectives on climate change can help to raise awareness and transform attitudes towards climate solutions.
“My study emphasises the importance of co-creative sense-making regarding climate change and as well as the danger of elite-driven media(ted) deliberation that limits bottom-up participation.
“Public sense-making regarding climate change should be a process of inclusive deliberation because the issue is complex, multi-layered and cross-sectoral with many different actors involved. Inclusive deliberation is required to drive collective climate actions."
Photo: Dr Dominic Okoliko at the graduation ceremony. Photographer: Stefan Els